Having been raised as a religious Jew in the United States, my support for Israel is a given.
After having lived in Israel for six years, my understanding of Israel’s position has surely undergone a fundamental transition, in part due to the basic process of maturation, as well as a few eye-opening experiences. I would like to share with you one of those experiences: a visit to the Palestinian refugee camp of Aida, located adjacent to the city of Bethlehem.
It’s the moment you realize that all is not as you had imagined. Before I delve into the details of my experience, I would like to say that it is not my job to place blame. I am not here to say who is right or wrong, or to justify one side’s claims over the other. I think enough of that rhetoric already exists, and I surely don’t need to add to it.
The gates of the camp are supported under a large metal key, the symbol of the Palestinian’s fundamental precept of the right of return. Many residents are proud to assert that they still possess the original keys to the houses from which they were evicted. Gratified on an adjacent wall are the faces of residents of the camp currently serving a life sentence in Israeli jails. I am touring the camp with a guy of my age, 24 years, who has experience showing tourists the “hot spots” of the camp— field with underground tunnels used to store weapons in the second intifada, an empty factory missing a big chunk of it’s side due a helicopter attack, a blackened outpost on the wall, adjacent to a large mural depicting Israeli soldiers arresting two blindfolded men.
Walking through the streets, I am ashamed to admit that I was surprised by the relatively developed infrastructure. I wasn’t really expecting the families who have lived here since 1950 to be living in tents; however Jenin, Daishesh, those towns ending with the word ‘camp’, evoked in my mind the images seen on TV of post-war interim African refugee camps.
Our guide tells us that as much as he thanks the international organizations that volunteers to the camp, he believes they incite violence and anger in the local people. He thinks that they should teach the children to be defined by something other then their refugee status, something positive. The fact that he is able to say this, even while being unemployed two years after having completed a university degree, and with all the violence and strife he has seen over the years, keeps my hope alive as well.
Cigarette in hand, peering through a window on the ground level, a man waves at my friend and invites us inside. Cramped in a small living room, siblings, cousins, parents and friends sit over coffee; the pungent smell of urine hangs in the air. Very generously they offer us coffee and we tell them in more than broken Arabic we’re Americans, from Boston, Miami, Los Angeles. Their generosity to mere strangers is astonishing and heartwarming.
In another house we visit, we discuss my background. A Jewish American of Lebanese and Syrian parents. My parents were also forced to leave their homes, and have since been unable to return. Maybe this is why I am able to feel such empathy and understanding for the people I meet.
It’s hard to understand what I am doing here. My American citizenship opens all doors; at the checkpoint upon entering we pass ahead of the line of waiting Palestinians; on the way out we wave our passports and pass without any problem. I can’t erase the nagging feeling that I don’t belong here, that this camp, a mere 2 kilometers away from Gilo, was not meant to be seen.
As an Israeli, I feel it is my duty to visit these places; without experiencing it firsthand, there is no way to understand what drives the other side, a crucial component in the resolution of any conflict. I don’t dare say I understand the complexities of what it means to be raised a refugee, but the trip instilled me with sympathy and camaraderie, as well as an urgent feeling of need to find a solution for these people, who at the end of the day, want the same basic things young Israelis want. I know it is illegal for Israelis to venture on their own around most of these places, however I wish more Jews who come and visit the Dead Sea, or the Jerusalem hills, would also take the time and spend a day on the other side. These are our neighbors, our brothers, and the burden of the future lies in our hands.
YaLa Young Leaders